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Akron, Ohio

Mayor Daniel Horrigan's 2017 State of the City Address

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as prepared for delivery - February 28, 2017

City of Akron Press Release
From the desk of Ellen Lander Nischt, Press Secretary
Published: 02-28-2017

Mayor Daniel Horrigan's 2017 State of the City Address

Thank you, Don, and good afternoon.

Don Taylor is not only the leader of the Greater Akron Chamber, one of the city’s important partners, but on a personal level, Don has extended himself into the business and civic life of Akron, and we have benefitted from the entrepreneurial spirit he has shared with so many people.  For that, we are grateful. 

This year’s State of the City is hosted by the Akron Roundtable, co-sponsored by the Greater Akron Chamber, Leadership Akron, Akron Kiwanis Club, and the Rotary Club of Akron. My thanks to these organizations for working together to host this event.  And let us thank the chefs, servers, laborers, and management team here at the Knight Center for their continued hard work.

A year ago, I said our city is on the verge of a renaissance—a time when we can create stronger and more stable neighborhoods, and a robust economy that touches all of us. And 12 months later, I believe we have taken major steps to make those promises a reality.

In this past year we have “set the table” for a new Akron—one that is poised to innovate and grow.  Having said that, we are keenly aware of the challenges we continue to face as we look to take our place among the best urban areas in the country.

As I review some of our successes this past year, please know that this is the result of a hard-working team of leaders at city hall in my cabinet, and the 1,800 city employees who are dedicated to making Akron a great place to live and work. With the approval of voters last Spring, we quickly formed the new department of Human Resources to better manage the workforce that serves all of us every day.

And, we have worked to develop stronger partnerships with Akron City Council. It was very important to me to reset our relationship to move this city forward. They have joined with me on numerous occasions in putting forth solutions for some of our most difficult problems. I’d like to ask Council President Marilyn Keith and the members of Akron City Council to please stand, and join me in recognizing their service to our community.

2016 was an interesting year. I held six town halls – one in each different area of the city, and a youth town hall that brought together students from every one of Akron’s high schools. I met with every senior class in the Akron Public Schools.  I convened Akron’s inaugural Health Equity Summit for leaders of health and social services, our faith community, our educators, and our residents, as promised. 

In June, we honored LeBron James with a party that 30,000 of you attended in downtown Akron. We designated a portion of Main Street “King James Way” after our hometown hero sealed a long-overdue championship for northeast Ohio–the first in 50 years.

And, in August, we said good-bye to our dear friend Russ Pry, a great friend to many of us and our county executive. We will all miss his leadership, his smile, and his uncanny wit.

In November, we celebrated the election of Summit County’s first female Executive, Ilene Shapiro, who is with us today.  Let me ask her to stand and be recognized. Ilene is an important partner for me and for the city. I look forward to seeing what we will achieve together.

I have learned in 2016—after listening to the collective wisdom of all of our residents, our business leaders, and our children—that we have an untapped reservoir of goodwill, an appreciation for our history, and a supply of energy that bodes well for our future. Those that live and work here want to see Akron grow and succeed, and I believe they will give us the tools to meet their expectations.

As you might expect, one of the first things that residents care most about is the massive $1.4 Billion sewer project and its impact on utility bills. Even before I took the oath on New Year’s Day in 2016, I made arrangements to meet with the EPA in Washington, and reach out to the federal court that oversees the largest construction program in the history of our city.

Twelve months later, I can report to you substantial progress. Construction of new infrastructure is on time and, importantly, I can tell you that we have accomplished my early goal of seeing the total cost of the program reduced.  In the past year, work has been completed on four storage basins that will reduce the amount of untreated sewage flowing into our waterways by millions of gallons after heavy rain. By the end of all our sewer projects, 1.6 billion gallons of untreated sewage, a year, will be removed from our waterways. That’s the equivalent of about 103,703 swimming pools.

The single largest project of all is constructing a mile-long tunnel under downtown. Our tunnel boring machine, named Rosie, is being built as we speak and is scheduled to arrive for work by early this summer.  As soon as she’s on site, I will invite all of you, our school children, and the community to see this awe-inspiring machine up close. And, in case you didn’t know, “Rosie” is the name of a real person—Rose May Jacob from Kenmore, who, with hundreds of other women, helped America win the Second World War by working in Akron’s rubber factories. 

By working with the EPA, we have been able to cut $30 Million from the cost estimate for the total project. And, with the changes, we also get clean water benefits sooner, remove fewer trees, and eliminate disruption along the Towpath Trail. In fact, we have committed to replace every single tree removed during our sewers projects with two new trees. By refinancing long-term debt, we were able to save another $18 Million over the life of the project.  So, in my first year, we have cut the cost to our rate payers by more than $50 Million.

As most of you know -- and I realize-- that is not enough. We must continue to bring these costs down, while seeking better financing options to pay for them. 

Another high priority, for all of us is safety.  We see the scourge of drugs and violence around the country, and we are not immune.  With regard to opiates and their replacement by heroin, often laced with fentanyl, Akron and Summit County have been at the center of this epidemic.  In response, I directed our Police Department to ensure that our patrol cars carried the antidote Narcan, and that police officers on the street were trained in how to use it. It has made a significant difference, and every day we see our police officers and EMT’s saving lives.

I want to take a moment to thank Akron’s first responders, for their continued commitment to bravely serve our citizens each and every day.

In 2017, Akron will establish Quick Response Teams, comprised of a police officer, a medic, and a treatment counselor, who will reach out to those who have overdosed. They will offer treatment resources to the overdose victim and the family. And where this model has been successful – such as Hamilton County – the QRT has resulted in a 35% reduction in overdoses, and an 80% success rate in getting people into treatment.

As I said in my Roundtable speech a year ago, in two Akron zip codes we have the worst infant mortality rates in the county and among the worst in the state of Ohio. In November, I convened a Health Equity Summit that engaged healthcare leaders, social service agencies, government and faith leaders and citizen advocates to help us develop a plan for intervention. It is clear that the primary driver of this inequity is the shocking amount of premature births in Akron.

Participants at the Summit developed two recommendations—(1) the need to define success and establish clear community-wide goals, and (2) neighborhood-level engagement around prematurity. My assistant for education and health initiatives, Dr. Terry Albanese, will continue to lead our efforts, and I’m proud to announce—with the philanthropic support of Akron Children’s Hospital, Summa Health, and Cleveland Clinic Akron General—this year I will hire a Health Equity Ambassador to assist us in achieving measureable results for our moms and babies. Please join me in thanking our hospitals for their support.

The best antidote to crime and poor health is pretty well known – it’s a job.  And the pathway to jobs is also pretty well known – it is education. That’s why much of my time this past year was spent in schools and meeting with local business leaders. Having taught in the classroom for ten years, it’s a subject I know something about. As I traveled to Akron high schools and spoke with principals, administrators, teachers and students, I came away knowing that our children are intelligent, they are well-prepared, and the notion that our schools are failing is simply wrong. It’s far past time we changed this perception.

But even with all the good work being done, we cannot ignore the numerous, independent reports, which show a canyon-like gulf between the educational level of our residents and the skills needed to compete for available jobs. This “skills gap” threatens our region’s ability to grow and attract new investment. According to data compiled by Summit Education Initiative, there are roughly 74,000 adults living in our region with some college, but no degree – that’s almost 20% of the population.

If there is one achievement from 2016 that I am most proud of it is the relationship that the city has established with Stark State College to build a new downtown campus—a $12 Million investment in Akron. Stark State Akron will provide low-cost options for residents who seek to bridge the gap between their current skill level and jobs that pay a living wage. It will also connect employers to the training and certifications their workforce requires to expand. We’ve ended the drought of Akron being one of the few Midwestern cities without an independent, state-supported community college. I’d like to acknowledge my partner in all of this, Dr. Para Jones, president of Stark State College.

Many of the jobs of the 21st Century will require advanced knowledge and a curious mind. And while we need to increase opportunities for workforce training, we also need the innovation of a strong University of Akron. I am a proud partner with the University of Akron and others on an innovation center right here in downtown–it’s called Bits and Atoms–and this is a project that will construct a makers’ space on Main Street bringing together professional, student, and citizen entrepreneurs alike. A place where all innovators can simply bump into each other and create.

In 2016, Bits and Atoms was awarded state and federal grants totaling over $3 Million.  More often than not, cities like Akron are turning to their research university partners to jumpstart the local economy. Patent activity and the retention of those with advanced degrees are becoming key performance indicators for cities on the rise. That’s why I will continue to seek unprecedented collaboration with the University of Akron. I want to recognize my partner in those efforts: President Matt Wilson.

Innovation is nothing new to our region, but we need increased scale and fewer silos for innovation to flourish once again. It’s through investments in technology and innovation that will place Akron among the most forward-thinking cities.

If I’ve experienced any frustrations this first year–and there have been a few–it’s in harnessing the collective resources of the city, the county, the universities, the Chamber and others in the area of economic development. The same reports that show our skills gap also reveal a stagnant local economy.

My Blue Ribbon Task Force organized a special subcommittee to examine economic development efforts in and around the city, recommending that we take our strategies in a bold new direction. That’s why, today, I am announcing, the creation of the Akron Growth Council. The Council will be made up of eight to ten individuals, whom I will appoint to advise me and my team on nothing less than a transformation of the economic development ecosystem in our city.

I have come to realize that the strategies that have been in place for the past 30 years are not necessarily those same strategies that will best serve us going forward. The job of the Council will be to break us out of our old habits help us to generate a new strategic vision for securing outside investment and create the environment for new jobs with wages that will allow our residents to support a family.

This will not be a strategic review that simply creates a plan to sit on a shelf, but rather a living, breathing process that seeks measureable improvement across the city. I have engaged our local and regional foundations in this effort, and I want to thank the Fund for our Economic Future, G-A-R Foundation, Akron Community Foundation, Knight Foundation, and FirstEnergy Foundation, who have pledged their support.

As we build, a great place to work, we must also create great places to live and play. A year ago, I promised that I would create the very first strategic plan for the largest job-center in Akron—our downtown.

With Suzie Graham, and the Downtown Akron Partnership, I have assembled a steering committee of 37 representatives of large and small businesses, finance, non-profits, housing, tourism and real estate. They have worked purposely and efficiently to publish ten principles that will lead us in making decisions about downtown development.

Our first success was identifying a new developer for the Civic Theatre block and a new developer for the hotel at Cascade Plaza.  We hope to see construction begin on both projects soon.

Additionally, through the hard work of many, Akron has secured not one, but two, nationally competitive grants to rejuvenate downtown’s public spaces. Reimagining the Civic Commons, a grant funded through a Knight and Kresge Foundation effort, and the U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER grant, will together provide, a $10 Million boost to our urban core.

I firmly believe we are going to grow from the core out; and as our downtown improves, so too must our neighborhoods, and we aim to tackle housing first. This month I unveiled a comprehensive housing strategy, detailed in its analysis and clear in its recommendations. We partnered with the Greater Ohio Policy Council to benchmark our plan against best practices, and I’ve commissioned the Reinvestment Fund to conduct a market analysis of all 200 micro-neighborhoods in Akron. 

What this tells us is that in many ways Akron is still recovering from the foreclosure crisis. Beyond the challenges that vacant housing presents, a significant portion of our housing is not in good condition and not attractive to middle-class families. My strategy seeks to establish those conditions paramount for new and in-fill housing construction, rehabbing existing homes, and preserving our historic neighborhoods. This is a quintessential situation where the rising tide does lift all ships, and as we implement my housing strategy I firmly believe new and existing residents will benefit. 

As you can gather so far, I am all about growth for this city—growth in population, growth in education, and in jobs.

When you look at the city’s history, our biggest periods of growth, have paralleled, America’s open door policy, for new immigrants. In the 19th century – it was the Irish and Germans. After the 19th century – people from Eastern Europe. I’ll bet many of us in this room today have grandparents or great grandparents who arrived here during periods of America’s great migrations.

What was true then, is true today- we benefit from the diversity of our population and a welcoming policy that brings people to our city from other countries. These aren’t Democratic principles or Republican principles, conservative nor liberal.  These are American principles, based on our collective humanity, for over 200 years.

And unfortunately, what is happening today, has happened before. Recently, I ran across this piece, from the Akron Beacon Journal. Let me read part of it:

No person of foreign birth who is a resident of Akron need fear an invasion of his personal or property rights. All foreign-born residents will be protected in Akron so long as they go peaceably about their business.

The writer goes on:

I urgently request that our people refrain from public discussion which might arouse personal feeling, and maintain a calm attitude toward everyone without regard to nationality.

That statement was made by my predecessor Akron Mayor, William J. Laub. And he published it on the front page of Akron’s two newspapers, on April 3, 1917 – one hundred years ago – on the very same day that President Wilson asked for a declaration of war against Germany.

When it comes to being a welcoming city... let’s allow our history, to be our guide.

Every day, I am energized, to fight for every healthy baby, every new graduate, and every, Akron job. I am incredibly proud of our first year in office and the growth, rebirth, and optimism, we have worked so hard to cultivate together. But, as I look forward into this coming year and the years to come, I am struck by the reality that the decisions we make today have far-reaching and powerful consequences.

While we continue to rise and meet the challenges of the present, we must also resolve to build a prosperous, healthy, and financially stable City for the generations that will follow.

As I see it, the two most significant responsibilities, I have as Mayor, are—first—to protect the health and safety of all citizens, and—second—to remain a prudent and faithful steward of your public dollars.

While I am inspired by the potential and momentum of Akron in this time of renaissance, I will not sugar coat where we are financially. We have significant challenges, and we need to have an honest conversation about exactly where we are.  While the overall state of the City is strong, and getting stronger, the financial state of the City is at a crossroads

Here’s an analogy I often use when talking about the City’s finances.  If the City’s budget was that of a household, it might look like this:

We would be a middle-class family. Our household income has suffered in recent years. We are doing all we can to earn more, but like many of our neighbors, we struggle to find the kind of work we had before the recession. We pay our bills, on time, every month, with what we earn, but we are living nearly paycheck to paycheck. We have a mortgage or two, student loans to pay, several credit cards nearly maxed out, and no real savings to speak of. We’ve cut back as much as we can, but if we cut back much more we will end up losing something important to us–like tutoring for the kids, keeping our house safe and clean, or being able to donate to charities. We worry about things like how do we send our kids to college, and what we will do, if, God forbid, the furnace was to break. 

This is no way to live as a family, and quite frankly, it’s no way to thrive as a City. And, as I said last year; I am not comfortable–nor, will I ever be–just to manage our decline. None of us should be.

Before I entered office, I appointed an experienced and diverse Blue Ribbon Task Force to “look under the hood” of our city government. The Task Force respectfully found that the City has several financial strengths, all of which I have seen first-hand, everyday–among them: a strong management team, strong asset base, and clean audits.  

I have implemented many of the Task Force recommendations, including; health benefits reform, partnerships to reduce city subsidies, more effective revenue collection and a critical review of city agreements and fee schedules.

But, since 2008, the City has lost more than $86 Million in income taxes–the result of unemployment and underemployment triggered by the Great Recession.

Second only to the loss of income tax has been the loss of fair tax-sharing from the State of Ohio. According to the independent Policy Matters Ohio report, released last month, Akron has lost $15 Million a year in state revenue-sharing since 2010, from the elimination of the estate tax and reductions in the local government fund. The casino tax, to no one’s surprise, failed to fill the gap. This equates to a 50% reduction in State support to provide services and maintain operations critical to our residents.

The majority at the Statehouse is proud of saying they balanced their budget, and they did, but at what cost?  The State has abandoned an 80-year agreement with cities, who supported a state sales tax and income tax in exchange for an agreement to invest a significant portion of those funds back into local communities. But now, as cities like Akron strive to re-energize their local economies and neighborhoods, the State has decided to keep those funds for itself.

Even as a revenue-challenged City, we must invest in our future. We can make no excuses. And quite frankly, I will not.  Our safety forces deserve to have the best equipment, our roads cannot continue to fall apart, and our neighborhoods cannot, and will not, be left behind.

This raises two questions: What does this mean, and how do we move forward? First, I will continue to cut costs and implement efficiency measures that will prevent any unnecessary spending. Second, I will focus on preserving our most critical servicespolice, fire, EMTs, road repair and infrastructure.

These essential neighborhood services keep Akron safe and strong, and we cannot allow them to deteriorate further.  Most importantly, I will go out to the community, as I’ve done since the beginning of my public service career, to hear what the people have to say and communicate our needs directly to them. Together, we must do what is needed to overcome inherited challenges and chart a pathway towards a more secure financial future. I have full confidence we will do just that.

Akron is known for being innovative and industrious–re-inventing itself in the face of a changing landscape. We have enough energy, enthusiasm, and determination for a City ten times our size. It will take all of that energy generated by our collective belief in Akron to ensure that we realize our full potential, every single day.

And while many of us in this room count ourselves among the converted I’ve heard supporters and detractors whisper, or sometimes even shout, “Hey, this all sounds great…but can any of this really happen in Akron?” Let me be clear—when people ask “Why Akron?” I say, we all must say, “Why not Akron?”  If we don’t believe in ourselves first, no one else will.

Why not Akron? As a city where a new economic vision spurs local growth and attracts new investment.

Why not Akron? A community where collaboration creates a vibrant, livable downtown.

Why not Akron? A city that celebrates the arts, culture, and diversity.

Why not Akron? A welcoming place where anyone can seek an education, a healthy start, or find their dream home. 

Years from now, when other cities look for a model of rebirth someone will say “Why not look to Akron?”  As Akron continues to evolve from its roots as an industrial powerhouse to a highly-creative and innovative center of excellence–let us never forget our greatest asset has remained constant, it’s our people. This resource has fueled us in the past and will again prove to be the catalyst going forward. 

And as I work together with you to embrace the challenges we all face together and the opportunities on the horizon—the state of the city is like my faith in the people of Akron. 
It has never been stronger.

 ##

 

 

For further information, contact:
Ellen Lander Nischt
Press Secretary / Assistant Director of Law
166 South High Street, Suite 200
Akron, Ohio 44308
Phone: (330) 375-2325
E-mail: [email protected]

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